38-year old actress Mary McCormack has been working steadily in film, television and on stage for over a decade. McCormack made her film debut with a small role in John Hughes’ 1994 remake of “Miracle on 34th Street”. A part opposite Robert Mitchum in 1995’s little seen spoof “Back Fire!” followed, but her real breakthrough came on the drama series “Murder One”.
A veteran of TV legal dramas, with guest appearances on the similarly themed “Law & Order” (NBC, 1994) and “The Wright Verdicts” (CBS, 1995), McCormack played the regular role of the high-minded and devoted junior attorney Justine Appleton. Her work attracted the attention of audiences and the casting agents for the much-hyped film of radio personality Howard Stern’s memoir “Private Parts” (1997). Given Stern’s reputation, McCormack initially opted to pass on the part of his long-suffering wife Alison, but her agent talked her into reading the script. Excited by the dimensionality of the character, and the overriding love story theme of the script, she accepted the role. The film exposed her to a wider audience, and her heartfelt and humorous portrayal of Mrs. Stern not only changed minds about the self-proclaimed King of All Media, but opened eyes to the actress’ abilities.
Featured roles in 1998’s “The Alarmist”, as Stanley Tucci’s scheming assistant, and “Deep Impact”, as a pilot, followed, and a busy filming schedule led to her near ubiquity on movie screens in 1999. She was an infertile woman married to a religious fanatic in “Getting to Know You” (which debuted at Sundance) before playing a DEA agent in “Harvest”, a drama about farmers growing marijuana to financially preserve their land. McCormack was also featured as a romantic partner for director-star Clint Eastwood in the thriller “True Crime” and portrayed the wife of a small-time hockey player (Russell Crowe) who ends up in a game versus the New York Rangers in “Mystery, Alaska” (1999), a film produced and penned by David E Kelley.
Additional projects featuring the actress included “The Big Tease”, a comedy co-starring Frances Fisher and Craig Ferguson (who also scripted) about a small town Scottish hairdresser who enters the hairdressing world championships in Los Angeles; a supporting turn in “The Broken Hearts Club: A Romantic Comedy”; and “Gun Shy” (all 2000), a Eric Blakeney action comedy film starring Liam Neeson and Sandra Bullock which bombed out of the gate. She also starred with Minnie Driver in the crime comedy “High Heels and Low Lifes” (2001) as one of a pair of downtrodden regular gals caught up in a blackmail scheme, but the actress fared better in the ensemble of writer-director Bart Freundlich’s film “World Traveler” (2001). She also had a fine but underutilized turn as Jeff Bridges’ wife in the dramedy “K-PAX” (2001). McCormack was then shone in “Full Frontal” (2002), from director Steven Soderbergh. She next appeared as the adoptive mother of David Spade’s full-grown ex-kiddie actor in “Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star” (2003).
In addition to her numerous film appearances, in 1999 theatergoers saw McCormack return to the stage in a high-profile role utilizing her capable singing voice. She succeeded Natasha Richardson and Jennifer Jason Leigh as Sally Bowles in the popular Broadway revival of “Cabaret”. McCormack latest role is in the tragic, often nihilistic Indie drama Right at your Door, starring as a dying survivor of a dirty bomb explosion that rips through much of downtown Los Angeles. Next year the versatile actress will return to television in USA cable’s new series Mary Sunshine. The actress talked exclusively to Paul Fischer.
Question: When you read a script like Right at your Door, which is so dark, what goes through your head? Why the appeal of playing a character in such a dark and nihilistic film?
McCormack: Well, I thought it was such a good read. I read it at night, and – my husband always makes fun of me for falling asleep, because I get three pages into a script, and with two little babies, I just fall asleep when I read. But with this one, I just stayed up all night reading it. I just thought it was excellent and Chris just did a great job writing it. It was just a great thriller, a page-turner and I’m always looking for things that work, that don’t need fixing, and this, to me, was really just carefully written. I just also felt something I think about a lot. We all live with a sort of weird anxiety now since September 11th, with code red, code orange, code yellow. Fear is such a big presence that takes up a place in everyone’s mind now, so I thought, it’s something that everyone can relate to, that everyone can day dream about, and think, “What would I do?” And then selfishly, it was a great part. It’s a great part. I don’t always get parts that are that big, and rich, so I thought I’d give it my best to get it.
Question: Your co-star in the film, Rory Cochraine whom I spoke to, didn’t seem to think there was a political message in the film. What is your take on that? Do you think the film has much to do with post-9/11 -America?
McCormack: I do think it does and I know Chris thinks it does. But I think it’s about fear in general, how much do you trust the government and are they going to rescue us? Is it going to be this sort of knight in shining armour, or are we sort of alone with our decisions. So I think there is some stuff. I certainly read it that way. But I also think it’s a great disaster movie, like an exciting ride. So I think it works on both levels, I hope.
Question: I know you’ve said in interviews how tough it was to shoot this. So, what do you do? Do you try and divorce yourself from that character when you’re working on a movie as emotionally challenging as this one?
McCormack: Well, luckily, this was 19 days, so I could sort of just grin and bear it. But at the time, I think I had a 1 1/2- half-year-old, so you can’t sort of sit in it too much during the day. So. I just remember coming home, I was covered in ash, dirt, blood, tears and coughing, I would just literally walk right into the shower and my husband would bring me a glass of wine. I would sometimes just weep. I remember one day, there was a day where we had friends in town visiting us from England and I said, “Oh, come to set.” So they came and I was like, it’s a perfect day, because it was a light day, the day that the soldiers drag me away. I remember coming down to the monitor and seeing them, and they were like – how can this be your light day? That’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen? I think that’s a pretty messed-up film, when that’s your sort of fun day on set.
Question: Is it tough to leave a character like that at home at the end of a working day?
McCormack: No., because I just wanted to be done with it. I just wouldn’t even think about – I would block it out. It’s so horrible to spend that many hours each day, imagining that kind of horror – that you’re dying, your loved ones are dying, and the world is ending. But I wouldn’t even think about the movie before I went to set and after I got home. I guess after I got home I did, because I’d look at my work for the next day.
Question: Do you see Rory’s character as a coward or a survivor?
McCormack: I guess as a survivor. We talked a lot about that before we started shooting and people talk about that still. Like, what would they do? And how dare he? And, I would never do that to my partner. What I always think is, who knows what we’d do? That’s the sort of weird part about it is, no one knew. When September 11th hit New York, no one knew what the rules were, because it’s a completely new experience. I was in New York that morning, and I had to do a bunch of press. I was going off to a photo shoot and I watched the second plane hit. I went to go get in the shower and my husband said, “What are you doing?” I said, “Well, I have this thing at ten. I’ve got to go – I’ve got to get to midtown for this photo shoot.” And he was like, “Honey, there’s no photo shoot” – I couldn’t even do the math in my head; I couldn’t even compute what was happening.
So of course there’s no photo shoot; there might be no midtown in five minutes. So I think I bought that he could do that, because I sort of believe that none of us know what we would do.
Question: You have to compete with so many other women who are vying for good roles, as well as movie stars etc. How ferociously competitive are you, and how tough is it for you, to find good work?
McCormack: I don’t think I’m probably that competitive. And it’s not easy to find good work, but you look in different places, in smaller movies like this. I’m about to start what I think is a really great role in a new TV show. Also I have a full life in other areas. I’ve got two kids, a three-month-old baby, and a husband I dig, so I’m probably less competitive than I should be, work-wise. But I don’t know. I just feel like I have a nice career, because I have a career that, with a little hustle, and with a little searching, I can dig up some interesting work. I’m not invaded, and my privacy and my kids’ lives aren’t invaded, so, I have a nice balance right now.
Question: Can you talk a little bit about your TV show? What kind of character do you play?
McCormack: Yeah. I play Mary Sunshine, an inspector for the witness protection program, so she’s a federal Marshall. It’s a show that deals with her work, her witnesses, but also her own life, and private life as well. So it’s nice, because there are both things going on at once. I have the work world, and I also have my personal life to explore.
Question: Who else is in that with you?
McCormack: Leslie Ann Warren, who plays my Mom. She’s brilliant. There’s Fred Weller, who’s a tremendous, tremendous theatre actor.
Question: Why the decision now to return to television? ,
McCormack: I’ve never really been a snob about TV and one of my favourite jobs I’ve ever done was Murder One. I had a great, great part on that, better than most film roles I get. Then on The West Wing I had a really good part, so I don’t mind the speed of TV, and I kind of dig it.
Question: What about the insecurities of television? You know, with TV, you never know if a show’s going to make it beyond X-number of episodes. Does that concern you?
McCormack: Not at all. I don’t care. There’s always other work. And I don’t really think that much about work. I remember when I did Private Parts, a lot of people were saying, “Oh, you can not do that, no one will take you seriously, and you’ll end your career.” I did think about that at the time, because so many people had such strong opinions about doing a Howard Stern movie. It turned out to be one of the greatest things I’ve ever done, both professionally, but also in my own personal experience. So since then, I just don’t plan.
Question: Beyond the TV show, anything else that you are planning on doing, or that you’re going to ultimately sign up for?
McCormack: No. [LAUGHTER] Not right now. I have a three-month-old, so, the TV show and a three-month-old are keeping me busy.
Question: Is it hard to balance young motherhood and work?
McCormack: It’s really hard. But, it was less hard before this TV show. This is a whole new challenge, because the hours are really tough. But luckily, my girls are little enough that if I set up my trailer like it’s fun, they still think it’s fun.
Question: You have a husband who helps out, though, right?
McCormack: I have a husband who’s really helpful, yes. [LAUGHTER] I’ll go on record. I have an English husband who’s very helpful. He’s very sweet.